‘It felt from the very first days of the February Revolution that its twin brother October walked near it’
Yelena Besschyotnova about the place of religion in pre-revolutionary Russia and the intellectuals’ attitude to the “cursed days”
How did Russian intellectuals in the 20th century try to understand the revolution in 1917? Why does the Russian people hate the church and priests that appeared during that time? Why do secular and religious principles in Russia still lack healthy relationships? Lecturer at the School of Philosophy at HSE NRU Yelena Besschyotnova talked about this in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.
“Religion stopped being a factor uniting society and became a personal experience and choice”
Mrs Besschyotnova, do you think that today religion is as clearly separated from science and power as it was 50 years ago?
There was a significant number of social changes in the middle of the 20th century driven by technological progress and a cultural revolution. The modernisation affected absolutely all spheres of society, including religion. The 60s were a period when traditional religious forms were destroyed, other forms replaced them, for instance, ideas of different subcultures.
If you’ve watched the series The Young Pope, you remember that its key theme is about Pope Pius XIII’s childhood experiences who was left by hippie parents in a church’s orphanage. At the end of the film, in fact, the main breakdown in this family as well as the breakdown in European society comes out where individuals who once existed in one symbolic system become tax collectors and Pharisees for each other. Parents in the film refuse the son for the second time because they have an absolutely different world view, which is absolutely anti-religious, anti-church, they can’t accept the son, the Pope of Rome, moreover, who is quite conservative.
The role of religious organisations in modern society also reduces. But not the influence of religious values, it does increase. The case is that religion stopped being a factor uniting society. The social meaning of religion weakened, but for individuals, religious values are core for their own life, they become an element that brings them together and gives a sense to their lives. In other words, religions shifted from the social sphere to the personal one, it became every person’s own business, the fact of one’s personal experience and one’s personal choice.
Actually, most of the Russian philosophers who witnessed the revolution in 1917 based on these tenets. Personal faith, their personal religious feeling was for them the light that helped withstand the revolutionary madness. For them, the revolution was a catastrophe of both Russian statehood and the central catastrophe of their own life. This key theme is seen in the famous collection of articles De profundis printed in 1918.
“How did Russian intellectuals experience the revolution? Suffice it to remember the names of their works”
Could you talk about how religious philosophers experienced the revolution in Russia?
To have an idea of how Russian intellectuals experienced the revolution in 1917, suffice it to remember the names of their works that described the days of the revolution. So Bunin called this Cursed Days, Rozanov did The Apocalypse of Our Times. But the authors of the collection De profundis conveyed Russian intellectuals’ moods in the most precise way, which can be easily called a requiem for pre-revolutionary Russia. Aleksey Losev appreciated De profundis more than any other collections of Russian philosophers. The authors of the collection tried to shed light on Russia and Russian thought’s deepest problems of that time. It was the period when the catastrophe of the Russian statehood, society, people and their own lives was already a fait accompli.
Almost all authors urged to religious renascence through repentance and admission of their own guilt, that’s to say, the guilt of the Russian intelligentsia, the elite of the society for the events that happened. Russian philosophers considered 1918 as a year when it became clear that old Russia was laying in ruins, and Christian ideals on whose basis European state formed and matured were defied together with it. For most of Russian intellectuals, the revolution in 1917 was the initial catastrophe that ruined the previous principles of life, that turned Russia upside down. The idea of the collection was offered by P. Struve in 1918, but the idea of the name belongs to S. Frank. It accurately reflects the mood and the feeling of the era and takes back to Psalm 129 in which the praying person calls to God out of the depths. So the authors of the collection were lonely after the historical collapse of the foundation of their lives, collapse of Russia and the ideas they believed.
If Vekhi collection caused huge polemics, there was a discussion about it during two years, its authors were branded that they were idealists, the collection De profundis had a more tragic fate because almost all the copies were arrested. And only a part of samples got to the hands of the reading audience with great effort. It was reprinted only in Paris in the middle of the 20th century and then after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Talking about the urge of the authors of the collection to religious renascence, S. Bulgakov’s On the Feast of the Gods is a key article in this respect. Written as a dialogue, it is a culmination of the collection, all voices, world views and positions coalesce in it. One of Bulgakov’s characters Refugee says a phrase that Orthodoxy for him was linked with the truth and verity, and this urge turns out very important for Bulgakov and all authors of the collection together with him.
Is it probably possible to illustrate the big picture of events of the revolution by putting an example of memoirs of some of the intellectuals in the 20th century?
A Russian intellectual’s life before and after the revolution is well illustrated by F. Stepun in his work Thoughts About Russia and philosophic memoirs Vergangenes und Unvergangliches. He described his inner emotions and the everyday life of his family and people surrounding him in detail — how together with his wife they got potatoes and firewood to have that basics for spiritual life, as he notes himself. How he worked in a theatre after the revolution, how actors went there every day after work, they were hungry and almost terminally ill but anyway rushed to the temple of arts from the mad life that surrounded them.
As for the firsts months in 1917, after the February Revolution, Stepun, on the one hand, accepted the February Revolution and was among liberal officers on the front who raised toasts for free Russia, free from the war, old regime, autocracy, old bureaucracy. But, on the other hand, he wrote the feeling of the duality of reality, the duality of every person didn’t leave him from the very first days, everybody began to have a twin, and everybody was afraid of seeming to be yourself. Such duality affected him himself. Stepun noted that when he went to the Constituent Assembly with his soldiers for whose rights he fervently fought, and when he had to sleep with them in one room. According to him, he struggled to suppress the feeling that he was anyway among people who didn’t correspond to him and that he could have spent the evening together with officers with much more pleasure. Stepun describes twins of many political activists of that period, but, most importantly, he wrote that it felt from the very first days of the February that its twin brother October walked near it.
“‘Logic of war’ sooner or later was to come out as a virus”
Why does the Russian people have such deep hatred of priests, churches and everything that was linked with religion that appeared at those times? Because it doesn’t seem to be some disappointment or simply atheistic coldness.
In my opinion, in 1917, it was not hatred of precisely priests and churches but the Russian people’s total tiredness, desire to not just change the old living conditions, the old world but be quits with them forever, be free from them. The revolution in 1917 is delirium of the Russian people, the First World War became its catalyst, the first world war at the end of which every person who participated in it, most of the Russian officers considered it as complete madness and craved for soon liberation. Yevgeny Trubetskoy in Meaning of Life called this phenomenon “logic of the war”, which sooner or later was to come out as a virus. In Russia, the logic of the war covered all spheres of life, and it turned from the Russian people’s fight with the external enemy into a fight with the internal enemy.
At the same time, observing the collapse of old Russia in 1918, Trubetskoy was convinced that the old world didn’t collapse completely. When it did, only external, non-religious forms of life turned out collapsed, while its foundation or, more precisely, the church, remained as an assembly of believers as a living organism, not a dead subordinate institution.
What are the specifics of the modern post-secular period in Russia? Does society change religions according to its values and vice versa nowadays?
First of all, Russian society experienced unique secularisation at the top, and the Church had to look for a way of survival, moreover, undoubtedly, I mean not only the Soviet era. Secularisation in Russia wasn’t a process linked with internal transformations in public moods but also represented an attempt of the state to limit the influence of the Church, take the lead in uniting society. Of course, Peter the Great’s reforms became the most notable transformation after which the Church in Russia obeyed the state’s interests. Secularisation at the top reinforced, of course, after the revolution in 1917. Affiliation to the Church in the Soviet period was for many a form of dissidence, but not everyone, of course. In the 90s, there was no such need.
The religious factor plays an important role, but in Russia, secular and religious principles don’t have healthy relationships, they are still ambiguous. Interestingly, such an attempt at reforming the relationships between the Church and society was made in 1905 when the order On Reinforcement of Religious Tolerance was published. Precisely Russian religious philosophy tried to find the middle way of development of society a hundred years ago, to become synthesis between two principles keeping society clear of temptations of fundamentalism. The actions that Russian philosophers offered then, from my point of view, could help understand today’s changes too, establish relationships between the Church and State on principles of freedom and independence.